When the very first McDonald’s arrived in Rotherham, 16-year-old Franco Ventura was seriously underwhelmed.
While his friends rushed to worship under the arches of the golden M at the veritable altar of American fast food, Franco was bemused by all the fuss.
His parents hailed from Southern Italy - and he had grown up on the food his mama always made.
“I was 13 before I had packet cereal,” he said. “I stayed over at a friend’s for the first time and the next morning he handed me this box...”
He had never ventured as far as the McDonald’s in what seemed like far-flung Sheffield and had never tasted Yankee-style fast food.
Though you’d think an inaugural bite of burger and fries would be the lure when he walked through the doors of the hotly-anticipated new restaurant in Rotherham’s Bridgegate, it was a job he was after. He got more than he bargained for. Though not more than he could chew.
Working part-time around his HND in catering at Rotherham College of Art and Technology for £1.48 an hour, he so impressed his bosses, they promoted him. At the tender age of 17 he became a manager at the Rotherham outlet - and promptly quit his studies for what he believed was a promising career at McDonald’s.
His rise to the top was as fast as the food. He got sole responsibility for his first store, in Barnsley, at 23 and by 26 was running five restaurants.
After a stint in Italy training up staff at 140 newly acquired restaurants and another in Northern Ireland developing its growing market, he worked on the Extended Hours strategy for the UK to ensure restaurants were equipped with the knowledge to enable 24 hour trading and won the President’s Award for his outstanding achievements.
In 2011 the boy who had started out learning how to fry perfect chips in the shadow of Rotherham’s All Saints’ Church was super-sized. He was appointed the REALLY Big Mac - McDonald’s vice president of operations.
With responsibility for 400 restaurants, plus the company’s UK services, safety and hygiene teams -around 35,000 employees - he still lives in Rotherham, commuting daily from his Bramley home to as far afield as Bologna in a typical week.
How did the former St Bernard’s Roman Catholic School pupil, who had grown up on Doncaster Road, make it to the top of a billion dollar global brand?
“What did they see in me? Probably my willingness to learn and my eagerness to take on responsibility,” he says. “And the fact that I was willing to work Friday nights...”
While his friends and young colleagues hit the town in their payday glad-rags to mark the end of the week, Franco would be clad in his blue and white Maccy-Dee’s uniform and paper hat, making shakes, flipping burgers and shaking fries.
“On Saturday nights I was out with them, though. Our circuit was Feeoffees, Elliott’s, McGinty’s and the Adam & Eve,” he recalls. It’s a safe guess there was a late-night quarter-pounder with cheese before home, too.
McDonald’s has a respected graduate management training programme, but some 80 per cent of its UK managers started out like him and learned the business from the bottom up.
“People find out the opportunities when they join and that the training you get is exceptional,” he says.
“There is no ageism and if you have the appetite for responsibility, you are given it. At 17 I was managing people in their 30s.”
Along the way, the 44-year-old has gained a clutch of professional qualifications - and a taste for his company’s products: “I love Big Macs now; I have one whenever I can. And whenever I’m working at one of our stores, that’s where I eat,” he says.
And while many a diet-conscious modern parent attempts to keep the McDonald’s Happy Meal at bay for as long as humanly possible, of course he takes his three-year-old daughter Kiara for one “as a treat.”
The VP’s daughter, a girl who could amass the biggest stash of Happy Meal collectables at the bat of an eyelid, does seem to be exercising her own control, though; “She doesn’t like chips or fizzy drinks. She prefers her burger with water and a fruit bag,” says dad.
In numerous studies, fast food has been blamed for the obesity epidemic but, says Franco: “It’s very easy to solely blame the food we eat.
“Obesity in the UK is a serious and complex issue. There are so many contributing factors. You could just as easily blame the car industry; we don’t walk anywhere anymore. I put weight on at 18 but it wasn’t because I was eating at McDonald’s: it was because I had passed my driving test.
“We serve three million UK people every day and our customers visit us two or three times a month, which is not excessive. We have introduced calorie-counted menus, salads and wraps.
“I think obesity is a society thing, not a McDonald’s.”
The Rotherham venue is now one of the first in the UK to boast a high-tech makeover, with self-service kiosks, digital menu boards, tablet computers on tables and free Wi-Fi. Did he have a hand in that?
“Well, there was a list of restaurants I could have selected and Rotherham was on it...” he says.
“Rotherham is going through visionary changes; people are fighting for it. It’s brilliant that we are a part of that nad McDonald’s IS committed to investing in the UK high street.”
The redesign, he says, recognises the need to respond to changing lifestyles. Ordering Big Macs via a mobile app is next. But the biggest revolution? Waitress service...